Difficulty in Dark Souls 3

Last year when I talked a bit about difficulty in video games, I mentioned the Dark Souls as an exemplar of difficult video game design. More recently, I had opportunity to play Dark Souls 3. I finished it too. So here are my thoughts.

Like other adventure games, Dark Souls 3 is essentially a power fantasy. It gives the player a sense of increasing power over time. It begins by disempowering the player, beating them down over and over. But the player is empowered to eventually succeed. And what makes this experience so effective, is that the success depends almost entirely on the player’s skill and cleverness, instead of their character’s level. After completing the game for the first time, you can start over from the beginning and find it significantly easier.

Something that this game makes me think about, what even is difficulty? Does it mean it’s mentally taxing? Does it mean it’s frustrating? Does it mean very few people can succeed?

In the context of Dark Souls, people seem to think difficulty means “You die a lot,” but I’m not sure this is the right way to think about it. New players die a lot, but instead of thinking of it as failure, you could think of it as a necessary part of the learning process. One of the Dark Souls taglines is “Prepare to die”, which is literally telling players that dying is a necessary part of the game. Dying is even a essential component of the narrative–you’re a cursed undead who comes back to life each time you die. It’s not like other games where if you die, the universe rewinds and the game says “let’s pretend that never happened”.  In other words, dying in Dark Souls is diagetic.

Personally, I had the greatest sense of difficulty not when I was dying a lot, but when I felt the most frustrated. Earlier I linked to an article called “Eleven Flavors of Frustration“, and several of those flavors seem relevant. Particularly having to start over, not getting anywhere, and being forced to repeat the same thing over and over.

If you check online for tips, you may experience yet another flavor of frustration, where you find that the thing you’re having a hard time with is considered easy by everyone else. For example, I had a hard time with the Deacons of the Deep boss, which most people consider to be one of the easiest bosses. Nobody could provide any sort of useful advice until I finally found someone who said the boss can be difficult if you don’t use a weapon with good crowd control.  Looking back, I didn’t actually die that much to the boss, but I experienced it as difficult because looking online was very frustrating.

Dark Souls fans have kind of a poor reputation for dealing with newbies. The most common response to a newbie asking for help is “git gud”, which is a flippant way of saying it’s the newbie’s fault. Or perhaps it’s an admission that they have nothing to say which would help. Having watched some videos where people earnestly give advice, I agree that no, there’s nothing they can say that would help. It’s quite clear that a lot of skill in Dark Souls 3 is based on intuition (what you might call System 1) and not deliberative thought. Experts say “git gud” because they literally can’t explain how to play better.

It probably doesn’t help that strategy depends a lot on your character’s build. Like when I had a hard time with Deacons of the Deep because of my weapon choice. I also found that while I found the dogs to be really easy, lots of other players have trouble with them, I think because their characters don’t have shields. My impression is that lots of players experience weird difficulty spikes throughout the game, but the difficulty spikes occur in different places for different players. It probably has to do with build or play style, and nobody has sorted it out.

I do wish Dark Souls content creators would have an ounce of awareness of the problem, and think really hard about how to give useful combat tips. Just recording yourself beating monsters doesn’t cut it. One specific thing I wish someone would do, is methodically go through a single enemy’s entire move-set, explaining the tells and how the attacks can be avoided.  But nobody seems to have even considered it.

My experience with the game was that the combat was often frustrating, and usually the solution was to just keep on trying until I built enough intuition to win. And even then I wasn’t really sure what my intuition was doing. I think this sort of game design makes sense, because not all players are capable of deliberating their way through a problem, but most are capable of eventually building intuition. But personally I found it dissatisfying. If I don’t understand what I did, I don’t feel very accomplished about it.  Maybe that’s why I prefer difficult puzzle games instead.

Overall, I liked the game, because of the dense and maze-like environments, and the slow tension-filled exploration. But I didn’t care for the core conceit of the game, the frustrating difficulty and intuition-based mastery. If I want more exploration-based video games, I can look elsewhere for that kind of thing.


  1. invivoMark says

    The variation in difficulty from player to player is one of my favorite things about the Souls series. I enjoy them immensely, and I usually find that there are at least a couple bosses in each game with which I never have any difficulty at all. The Nameless King, considered by many to be the most difficult boss in Dark Souls 3, has never caused me any trouble at all, even when I use different character builds with different play styles.

    I enjoyed watching a playthrough on YouTube of the same game by a person with substantially worse reflexes than my own. At first I thought he would have lots of trouble with the game, perhaps even find himself unable to continue at some point. And he did indeed struggle with the earlier bosses. Eventually, though, he found that equipping the heaviest armor and the biggest shield he could find, he had a much easier time. Sure, he couldn’t dodge very much with all that weight, but the game became focused on stamina management, with a strategy of hiding behind a shield for as long as possible, only getting an occasional hit in. As a result, he easily toppled some of the later bosses that caused me a lot of problems.

    It’s a magical thing when a game can give each player their own unique story.

    There’s a lot that can be said about difficulty in video games, but what the Souls series does well is that it feels fair. It is forgiving enough that just about everyone can win if they are persistent, and there is always something you can learn to improve your odds of survival.

    For me, one of the most difficult bosses my first time through the game was the Dancer of the Boreal Valley. On paper, this is not a difficult fight. The boss telegraphs all of her attacks, there is lots of room to dodge or block, and she leaves a lot of openings for attack. What is difficult is that the animations were designed to look slightly different from how a person moves. She always looks a little off-balance, her movements a little bit alien, so that it is difficult to correctly time a dodge or a block. Learning that timing is something that is necessary to win. And because learning that timing is, in principle, a simple thing, the boss feels fair. Even when she’s skewering you for the fiftieth damn time!

  2. says

    A lot of people describe the Souls games as “difficult but fair”, and I was asking what it really means to be “difficult”. But I’m also not sure what it really means to be “fair”. I’m not sure this experience of “fairness” was something I myself felt.

    During the most frustrating moments of the game, my thoughts were stuff like, “Yes I need to get better before I deserve to beat this boss, but how am I supposed to get better when I have to run through a long boring area only to get killed in the first 10 seconds?” and “How am I supposed to know how many attacks are in a given combo? I don’t even know if I’m reacting too slowly or if I’m missing an animation cue, and why doesn’t anybody on the internet even think to ask this question?” Like, maybe it’s “fair” that the game is asking me to master the combat system, but it felt “unfair” when it failed to provide the tools to do so.

  3. invivoMark says

    I have no idea what it means for a game to be fair, but I think the game feels fair. Very different things. Of course, the latter is absolutely subjective, so YMMV.

    I think people perceive the Souls games to feel fair because it is usually easy to stay alive (by blocking with a strong shield, dodging the more telegraphed attacks, or simply breaking and running when the water gets really hot), but relatively more challenging to find an opening to safely attack. The stamina system contributes to this, as you usually have enough stamina to evade all damage as long as you’re not also swinging your sword around. By the same token, this lets you learn your opponent’s moves and openings.

    In the video series I mentioned, the player would start every boss battle by crouching behind a shield and never attacking for at least a full two minutes. By the time he started taking swings, he knew when he would be safe enough to do so.

    If we want to generalize the idea of “tough but fair” to video games in general, I would start thinking about how much allowance the player is given before they are punished, and how severe the punishment is. Do you think the game Super Meat Boy is “tough but fair?” A lot of people do. I’m not sure I do. I think that the room that game gives for deviation from the “correct” sequence of inputs is too small. For others, the fact that the levels are short and therefore failure only puts you back a few seconds of gameplay counterbalances that narrow allowance.

  4. dangerousbeans says

    IMO, Dark Souls 3 is badly designed. it places too much emphasis on rote memorisation of enemies attack sequences and communicates important hitbox information terribly. because of how slow the animations are you need to know what the enemies are going to do a second in advance, which you only get by fighting them enough to memorise the pattern. the locations of things in the world bear no relation to the hitboxes, so you have to learn that by a trial and error approach too. I watched a slow motion replay of the first boss fight, and you can clearly see the halberd shaft pass right through the PC with no reaction.

    though some of the comments above suggest i was just playing with the wrong build. what’s the build for someone who grew up on unreal tournament and quake 3?

    (amazing visual and world building design though)

  5. says

    invivoMark @3,
    That’s funny because I definitely could not just stand around for two minutes just blocking attacks. Any tough enemy would break my guard with one combo, and stamina would only recharge at a reasonable rate if I wasn’t holding up my shield all the time. Even basic enemies would have ways to punish relying on a shield. I don’t know what kind of build you’d need to have such a different experience with the game.

    It comes down to builds and play styles again. I feel the game makes you commit to builds without really understanding them, and punishes any exploration of different play styles.

    I have not played any Super Meat Boy.

    Have you played any of the soulsborne games? I’ve heard some people complain about hitboxes, but it wasn’t bothersome to me because I haven’t played any earlier games, and didn’t have any expectations about the hitboxes. For sure, sidestepping attacks was inconsistent at best, and I’d usually adopt a strategy that didn’t rely much on hitbox information. Also, I agree that much of the game was about memorizing attack sequences, but I didn’t really have any expectations that it would be otherwise.

  6. Porivil Sorrens says

    See, funnily enough, this is pretty much the opposite problem I had with DS3.

    Every weapon was pretty much viable with the right build, so it felt like what weapon I chose was just as irrelevant as what armor I chose to wear. At the end of the day, the difference between a straight sword, mace, and rapier felt like it was just a matter of whether I pumped Str or Dex (or both).

    After beating it a few times I got bored, because the weapons just felt like cosmetically different damage pumps and every boss fight came down to “roll out of the enemy’s spam combo and hit them once or twice” for 5 minutes.

    I also dislike how 3 traded in the slower, methodical fighting of DS 1-2 for Bloodborne style “I jump at you, flail wildly, and then jump back” enemies, while you’re stuck with Dark Souls slowness for your own attacks.

  7. invivoMark says

    Siggy @5,
    Bigger shields tend to have higher “stability” stats. I don’t remember if that’s a hidden statistic or if it’s listed in the item description. Higher stability shields incur lower stamina loss for each hit you block. You still have to put your guard down to recharge your stamina, but sometimes running away can give you all the time you need to recover.

    I’m not sure I agree that the game punishes exploration of different styles. To me, figuring out how to make a different style work is rewarding in itself (although in Dark Souls 3 this might mean creating a new character). Moreover, if you find that another style works better for you, then you will have an easier time against the same enemies you struggled against previously. And that’s exactly the sort of power fantasy that RPGs thrive on.

  8. says

    porivil sorrens @6,
    I think the sameness you experienced across different builds could actually be symptomatic of how the game discourages different play styles. Even when you switched builds, it sounds like you were still mostly playing the same way. I mean, if you’re just switching between Str and Dex melee weapons, and still rolling for defense, I agree that it seems cosmetic.

    invivioMark @7,
    The stability statistic is not hidden, but I never knew what it was, and did not imagine it would make a huge difference.

    Some specific things I think the game does to discourage exploration of different play styles:
    -Being good at the game is based mostly on intuition, without giving the player an understanding of what they’re doing. So your play style, whatever it is, becomes a habit that’s really hard to break.
    -There is little guidance as to what alternative play styles are even possible. e.g. I didn’t know what the advantage of heavy shields even was.
    -Your stats can make certain play styles difficult or impossible. e.g. I didn’t try heavy shields because of the weight requirements.
    -Weapon upgrades make it expensive to switch weapons and have them be viable.
    -You can carry multiple weapons to be switched out, but then they all contribute towards the weight limits.
    -If you try a new play style and it doesn’t work, there’s no way to know whether it’s not suited to you, not suited to the particular encounter, it needs a lot more commitment to be viable, or it is never viable.
    -Fundamentally, the game was just too difficult for me to feel I had the leeway to experiment. I could see the game feeling a lot more free on a second play.

    I used a build with a shield and katana, just under the 70% weight limit, and I relied 50/50 on rolls and shield for defense. I occasionally tried different things and felt punished every time. I tried an ultra greatsword, but it fell behind in weapon upgrades and was too heavy as a backup weapon. I put some points into pyromancy, but at that level it was only good for pulling. I spent a lot of time finding Rosaria to respec, and there was a noticeable boost when I did. Even minor experiments like using the weapon two-handed, or parrying felt punished. Attempts at parrying would cause me to die to basic enemies, and I couldn’t figure out if the timing was wrong or if the attacks were unparryable. Guides to parrying on the internet were lacking in this basic information. The one and only experiment which I felt was successful, was when I started using a bow to pull enemies, and I had to look it up to even figure out how to do that.

  9. invivoMark says

    I wonder if there might be a difference in what we all mean by “play styles.” Surely, a shield and a rapier will lead one to fighting in a very different style from holding a big-ass hammer in both hands. But there are other ways that style can present. For instance, choosing to roll toward an enemy vs. away, or choosing to spend most of one’s time out of reach vs. standing up close and holding one’s shield up.

    I agree that getting halfway through the game using a heavy shield then switching to parrying every attack with an offhand dagger is going to lead to frustration. On the other hand, realizing that an enemy is slow to turn around and thus vulnerable when rolled past can make certain parts of the game almost trivial. Or one might switch from a katana to a straight sword and find that the slightly quicker attack speed lets them get hits in where the katana would leave them vulnerable.

    Without getting bogged down in the critique of the game’s design, I’m not sure I agree that mastery is based on “intuition” and thus is resistant to understanding or analysis. Every time you get hit, it’s because you made a mistake. The key to success, in my opinion, is figuring out whether it’s easier to adjust your actions so that you don’t make that mistake, or whether you can adjust your equipment or build in a way that you can take the same approach without leaving yourself open.

  10. says

    invivoMark @9,
    For sure, changing how you roll, and how much distance you keep from the opponent could be considered changes in play style, and those changes are relatively easy to make. I’m sure I made such adjustments all the time, without thinking about it too much. But players seem to be confined within a narrow range of play styles, which is why each player seems to have their unique story, as you said at the beginning.

    The reason I believe that mastery is based on “intuition” is because I cannot explain, even to myself, how I improved at the game. Nor was I able to find any decent explanations on the internet. Maybe some people experienced the game differently, maybe some people experience “intuition” differently in general. I suppose some people at least attempted to give strategy advice, but I might have shrugged them off because it was bad advice, or advice that was obviously dependent on the particulars of their character, or it simply did not address the thing I needed help with.

    I don’t think it’s actually bad that the game was based on intuition, and I think it shares this characteristic with most other action games. It’s just something I didn’t care for. When I got hit it was because I pressed the wrong buttons at the wrong time–why did I do that, I don’t know, but I know I’ll do it again even if I think about it real hard, so I just die more until I learn to do it less often. It didn’t feel particularly rewarding, it was just, go through a lot of frustration until my brain does its thing. Other action games are the same but feel less frustrating in the process. I don’t know, that’s how I experience it, I would be interested to hear if other people experience it differently.

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